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The Identity Challenges That Come With Getting Married

Written By Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

Something that people don't talk about enough are the identity changes and challenges that come with getting married. Many people assume, especially if they have been with their partner a while, that the changes that come with marriage are mostly related to paperwork like taxes, insurance and the like. So, when people get married and start to feel a bit different, it can be a lonely experience. I wanted to create this post to help people acclimate to these changes. Now, of course, everyone's experiences are different, some of these things may resonate and some may not. That's okay. I would just like to bring awareness to these possibilities to help you feel more prepared as you venture into this next chapter of life.

The Name Change

When I got married I was excited to change my last name. I had thought about this decision a lot and considered it from a few different angles (professional, feminist, paperwork, etc). I felt prepared. Still, once I changed my name, I felt.... different. Since then I have spoken to many other people who have felt similarly. Many times people underestimate the weight a name can hold.

Your old last name had certain history, events, family stories, physical attributes, even personality characteristics. When you change your name, you're suddenly associated with a family whose history, events, family stories, etc, are less familiar to you. It can feel strange and it can also feel like a big expectation to learn to fit in.

It can also hold a light up to how women are often (thought this is changing a bit in younger generations) expected to take on a new identity and a lot more in marriage than men. You can feel this with a name change as there is a lot of paperwork and tasks related to such a change. In a straight marriage, if just the woman is changing her name this weight is felt early on. Though some people are changing things up and choosing different avenues with their name change.

There are so many different ways that people approach last names now. Either or both partners may change their last name. Sometimes one or both partner's might hyphenate their last name. Partners may create a new last name that is not related to family names, others incorporate family names or they may choose matrilineal last names (from mother's side the family) instead of patrilineal (from father's side of the family) last names. If traditional forms of name changes aren't for you, there are a lot of other options for you that might better reflect your values.

Whatever choices you make regarding last names, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself regarding the transition. You may be tempted to minimize your emotions around this, but allow yourself to name and feel the fullness of your emotions. Take time to appreciate the old name and celebrate the new, this can make the transition easier.

Marital Roles

If you have a really good flow in your relationship before you get married, congratulations! That can certainly carry into your married life. What will be new in your married life is the expectation associated with your marital role. I know that to some the term "marital roles" feels outdated, but time and time again I see the pattern of marital roles sneak into marriages and create pressure and resentment. Martial roles can look like who does housework, who is making financial decisions and how, sexual expectations, who plans outings, how things are handled with in-laws and so forth. So many things can impact how we view and operate within these areas of our lives. Culture, society, family values, faith, life events, what you saw growing up. It is very common for couples to fall into traditional roles once they get married, stressors arise or once children enter the picture. Sometimes in stressful situations you may fall into recreating what you saw growing up, even if it isn't what you want for your relationship. It is helpful to have conversations about these areas of your life before marriage and also be sure to check-in on these things regularly once you're married. The Gottman Institute suggests using a weekly Gottman State of Union to check-in about how things are feeling in your relationship.

It can also be about how others believe you should be functioning in your relationship now that you are married. Even if you and your partner aren't falling into traditional roles, those in your life that have specific views on how marriage should function, might project that onto your relationship. They might be doing this by making critical comments about the decisions you make, making requests that are not aligned with your values, giving you advice that you did not request or gossiping about your decisions to name a few. These behaviors sometimes cause couples to acquiesce in a way that sometimes resembles people pleasing. For those that are unfamiliar with people pleasing, I'm talking about when your putting the desires of others ahead of your own needs. When this is done regarding agreements in your marriage, this can feel like a betrayal of values to yourself and your partner. It is important for you two to get on the same page and be a united front on your values to help prevent such incidents.

Using the Couple Bubble approach developed by Stan Tatkin, who created the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT) method of therapy, is a helpful way to think about this. Creating this bubble involves identifying the values you share as a couple and how you will protect them together. PACT therapy refers to anything that may be intervening in the relationship (and permeating the couple bubble) as a "third". Thirds can disrupt the couple bubble on purpose or on accident. Some examples of thirds include work, exes, family, children, addiction, in-laws and so forth. The best way to manage thirds is as a team.

Family & In-laws

Something that comes up a lot among newlyweds and couples in general is family and in-laws. It can be tricky navigating how to blend with new family, and still maintain your individuality. Not to mention, that this is on top of balancing the needs of your individual identity with the needs of your marriage. As I mentioned earlier, family and in-laws may make demands and you need to be clear about your boundaries. And it may also be important to figure out (as long as family and in-laws are safe people) how to mesh with new family and be respectful of their values, culture and traditions.

While doing all of this, it is important to feel connected to yourself and your partner in terms of your beliefs, needs, values and wants. Remind yourself that this can be a normal part of the newlywed process. You are not alone. It can be especially helpful to have friends that your talk to about this experience. Before you choose these friends, make sure you and your partner have discussed what topics and people are off limits, so that you're honoring your couple bubble. When you choose these friends for support, be sure to choose people who are open-minded, supportive of your and your marriage, can hold you accountable and are not likely to bash your partner. This helps you remain balanced while working through this process.

Some difficult emotions and interactions that you may experience with your in-laws may actually be about their own grief around their changing relationship with your partner/their adult-child. Something we don't talk enough about as a society is the grief that comes with changing relationships. As your in-laws experience a difference in how they can interact with your spouse, they may experience big emotions that they don't know how to name or manage, so it may come out in passive aggressiveness, emotional outbursts, possessive or controlling behaviors, rude comments, criticism and so forth. It is not okay for them to act out in this way and it is also understandable. This is that tricky place where you will need to let them know that their behavior isn't okay and set a boundary and you can also have compassion for their experience. Being able to acknowledge why this time may be hard for them can go a long way. Compassion and boundaries can work together well while navigating this strange territory.

Friends and & Free Time

As we have covered, responsibilities can change once you get married and as that changes free time and relationships with friends may also change. It may mean that you engage less and have less free time and/or it could mean how you engage with your friends changes. This could be because you're focused on your new goals as a married couple. For instance, now that you're married, you might have the goal of saving up for a house, so you might spend less when you're with your friends. Or you might be focused on starting a family, so you spend more time preparing your home and lifestyle for that transition vs going out in the ways you did before.

Your friends may struggle with this. They may have questions, judgments or criticisms. You may struggle with this. There might be a type of grief that arises because, again, you're leaving behind one identity and embracing another. Same for your friends. Something that we, therapists, encourage when working with grief is integration. Integrating who you were before with who you are becoming. We want to do this with thoughtful intention. I encourage you to ask yourself what you want to change, what you want to remain, the reasons why you want these things, the impact of all of this and what you need to help yourself through. Much like I suggested you do with family and in-laws, you can discuss, with your friends, what is hard about this while still maintaining boundaries. This is new to everyone involved. No one has to be perfect in how they approach these concerns, they only have to be willing to put in the effort.

Getting Support

If you find yourself wanting professional help around these areas, you can work with a couples therapist that specializes in pre-marital and newlywed work, as I do. When I do pre-marital work with couples, I like to use Prepare and Enrich and Gottman Method. Prepare and Enrich allows you and your partner to take a pre-marital assessment that shows how aligned you are on things like sexual expectations, marital roles, housework, spirituality, hobbies, etc and gives you a guide with exercises to help navigate your results. It also looks at family patterns in flexibility and closeness and personality traits such as emotional stability, partner dominance, how you handle stressors, etc. This can help you get a sense of what you're working with as a couple and help you have the important conversations early on. I would also have you take the Gottman assessment that allows you to see how well you're doing with the seven principles of the Gottman Method, which range from friendship, to conflict management, shared goals and beyond. Then, we would use these results to decide which skills we would practice first. If you would like to work with me, you can use the contact buttons at the top of this page to reach out. I also offer couples intensives for pre-marital work if you would like to work more quickly.

Marriage can be such a beautiful experience. I hope this information helps prepare you for the bumps in the transition and enjoy the beauty that married life can be.

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy, Couples Intensives and EMDR Intensives. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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